October 13, 2014

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A little Story about Back Country Air Strips …

(from an article published in "Flyways Magazine")

The summer 2003 was a big fire season for everybody. A lot of heavy air tankers were still shut down due to the two fatal mid-air break-ups the previous year, so helicopters were pretty much the name of the game.

I was flying an AS350 B3 AStar for Bridgeport Helitack that year. This crew is what they call in the fire industry an “Interagency Helicopter Rappel Crew”, which means we have very well trained aerial firefighters on board who can rappel from the helicopter close to a fire in case I can’t land the helicopter at a reasonable distance to where we need to work.

It was this rappel capability that landed us on the “Hot Creek Fire” which was raging through the Boise National Forest an hour north of Boise, Idaho in July that year. Our primary mission was to rappel into tactical locations in the forest and cut out helispots for other helicopters to land and bring in firefighting crews and supplies. When we got there, the fire was “sleeping” after a big push it made the day before due to a small amount of rain. Two little townships Idaho City and Atlanta, ID were threatened by the, at the time, approximately 20.000 acre monster. Cabins and Campsites in the area had already been evacuated at the time.

I noticed right away that there was no place to land anywhere. The reason I remember this so vividly is because we spend a lot of time fighting fires in Nevada and though there isn’t much in this state, there are plenty of places to land. It’s a shocker to me every time I fly up to Idaho or Montana. While flying a helicopter, you always look for places to go in case something goes wrong, but here were nothing but trees. Lots and lots of tall trees… (Which explains the term “National Forest” I guess)

We landed at a small airstrip called in Idaho City (U98) which was converted to a helicopter base by the Forest Service with five or more ships already on scene and heavily involved in the firefighting effort. Two or three days later we moved the helibase to another airstrip close to Atlanta (55H) because the fire had taken a different direction and was now threatening the houses there.

I have to say, these back country airstrips are pretty rugged and I really admire my fixed wing colleagues who are skilled (or crazy?) enough to land at these strips. They had two strips in Atlanta, one of them seemed to be a private strip belonging to some lodge, and I have to say that even though I was flying a helicopter, I still had to carefully plan my approach and landing going in there. I can only imagine what my “stuck wing” friends do. I was fortunate enough to meet some of these guys in Salmon, Idaho at a fire later in the season and watch them work. If something goes wrong in a helicopter out there we are prepared to take the aircraft into the trees, hopefully straight down and with zero forward airspeed, but for these guys, the occasional back country strip seems to be their only option.

The fire made three more big pushes the following week until a rain storm finally helped us out,

…or so we thought. After the fire had burned all the vegetation, the rain triggered numerous huge mudslides thundering down the mountain which took out the only decent road to our camp and the town ship of Atlanta. We were more or less cut off from civilization. There was only one small old logging road winding its way through the backcountry but it seemed too small to get any big fuel trucks or other heavy fire equipment in or out of our base.

We were told it will take months to repair the damaged road. I have seen some good fires before in my career but this one had me feel like I was on the show “Survivor”. No phones, TV, air-condition, not even sodas, but bugs and bears instead. Although we’re out in the boonies often it felt differently being cut-off with roads washed out. The absence of cameras following me around brought me back to reality though realizing I will not be on television this time.

After a couple more days the helicopters started running out of fuel so we made the decision to refuel at another back country airstrip called Weatherby (52U) since it was down river from the mudslide and fuel trucks could get there. We had to bring on additional fuel trucks since most of ours were trapped. My crew was lucky since the truck of our sister ship had been in Boise getting fuel at the time of the mudslides and could now give us fuel until my truck would meet up with them later to pay them back.

I never found out how they got all the big trucks and equipment out of there after I left but my mechanic told me they did some improvements to the old logging road and with a one way system in place they could get a certain number of vehicles in or out of this place every day. I did have to wait a whole day for him in Boise after we got released from the fire.

Without utilizing these back country air strips, the historic town of Idaho City (an old gold mining town built between 1862 and 1863) and the little township of Atlanta could have been lost forever. I believe most of these strips are owned by the forest service so they might not be threatened to be shut down, but I was merely trying to tell a true story of what happened to me and what could happen in the future. Just something to keep in mind the next time somebody feels the need to close an airstrip down no matter where they are. They were put in for a reason. Let’s leave them where they are. It’s my personal humble opinion that the environmental impact is minimal and definitely far less than the common campsite.


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